Young Invincibles celebrates National Mental Health Awareness Week, and the integral role mental health plays into wellness and navigating health care. Even as mental health is covered under the Affordable Care Act, many young people struggle with stigma attached to mental illness and its symptoms. Young Invincibles is working to break this stigma by encouraging Millennials to learn about and utilize their health care options. The following story narrates one young person’s mental health journey. The author of this piece prefers to share this story anonymously.
It started with odd numbers. Someone once told me that odds were superior to the even numbers, and that stuck. I wasn’t raised in a home that prioritized mental health, or even recognized it as a part of health care. My parents told me I was high strung when I panicked over an even number of vegetables on my dinner plate, or if my food touched. Since I was only high strung, I didn’t see a problem with my fixation on the numbers. Odds were perfection, and I would achieve perfection. I set up challenges for myself. As a kid, I’d figure out how many grapes I could eat in a minute. I’d rearrange the contents of the fridge by size, then by color if size didn’t look right. And if someone touched what I created, it was ruined. I’d start over, and find a new way to rearrange the contents. It had to be perfect because I had to be perfect.
Illness of any kind can often start out small. People notice the signs when you have a coughing fit or physical pain. They notice because they want to avoid it snowballing into something serious. But when you’re a child who has to run up the stairs in an odd number of steps, you just have a quirk. The symptoms weren’t seen as symptoms until they started to snowball. My obsession with odd numbers turned into an obsession with perfection. As a teen, my self image was cut from photoshopped magazine covers. Consequently, it became increasingly difficult to see myself reflected in mirrors or shop windows. My skin wasn’t marble-smooth, and my waist wasn’t pinched into a perfect size zero. And so “zero” became my goal. I wanted more than anything to step onto a scale, and see the number zero.
The games I made for myself became dangerous. I’d challenge myself to only eat green foods for a day. That became too easy, so I shifted to purple foods. Then, to something rare or bizarre, like robin’s egg blue. When I couldn’t find anything in that color, I wouldn’t eat that day. That meant I’d won, and I was that much closer to zero. By the time I had learned about anorexia or bulimia, my goal of zero far surpassed the effects of an illness.
In college, my habits became self-destructive. I remember walking into classes and feeling the weight of terror that everyone in the room was judging me, that somehow they had figured out that I was far from the perfection that I needed to achieve. I convinced myself that they all knew my inadequacies, and that every flaw was neatly spelled out all over my face. There were days where I was literally immobilized in my dorm, afraid to go to class and be judged by everyone who seemed to have figured themselves out. I missed several classes, and by the end of the year, I lost my honors scholarship.
I was in sophomore year when I learned that my experience didn’t have to be a private battle. I moved out of my dorm by then, and lived with a group of girls. One of them–who I am still close friends with today–went to therapy regularly. It was an idea I hadn’t considered before. “You mean I just pay someone to talk to me?” I asked her. She promptly explained that therapy was much more than that, and there were several resources on campus that could help me.
I was skeptical at first, but was willing to give it a try. Several sessions revealed to me that my quirks were more than quirks, and that I didn’t have to face them alone. My school’s psychologist taught me that I wasn’t just high strung; I was diagnosed with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. The right medication and an understanding therapist were the beginning steps to a healthier lifestyle. I began viewing myself differently, consciously highlighting my positive traits instead of being defined by insecurities.
I’d be lying if I said I changed overnight. It was important that I was patient with myself, that I took time to breathe and remove myself from toxic situations. However, my mental health did improve. I matriculated through undergrad and grad school knowing that I had a cache of tools at my disposal. Today, I prioritize my mental health. When I start a new job, I ensure that my health care includes a comprehensive mental health package. This way, wherever my career takes me, I can know that I have that network of support.
That doesn’t mean that everything is instantly easier. I still have bad days when my anxiety or OCD are too much to handle. But experiencing my worst isn’t so bad knowing that I’ll always have someone in my network or something in my toolbox to pull me out of a downward spiral. Simply knowing that mental wellness doesn’t have to be experienced alone makes a tremendous difference, and I want other people to feel that difference as well. If you or a loved one shows symptoms of mental illness, I strongly encourage you to get familiar with your health care plan, and use the resources you’re owed. As we close out Mental Health Week, please prioritize yourself. Practice self care, go easy on yourself, and seek help if you need it–even if you’re as skeptical as I was.
Managing mental health begins with connections to services and networks. In observance of Mental Health Awareness Week, here are some resources that can help young people navigate and de-stigmatize mental health:
National Alliance on Mental Illness: NAMI is the nation’s biggest mental health organization. It provides services like hosting programs to educate families on mental health and running a helpline and texting platform.
National Eating Disorder Association: NEDA provides resources and support for individuals and families that are affected by eating disorders. They also host a helpline for anonymous callers.
Hispanic Family Counseling – MEJORANDO LA CALIDAD DE VIDA: Hispanic Family Counseling Center was founded in 2012 with the hope of providing mental health services tailored to the specific needs of the Hispanic community.
The Association of LGBTQ Psychiatrists: This site features an online referral system and directory of professionals who specialize in providing services to the LGBTQ community. In addition, the site also lays out resources for patients ranging from individual and community resources, to education and advocacy resources and GLBT-focused mental health professional groups.
Black Mental Health Alliance: The Black Mental Health Alliance offers training, support groups, resource referrals, and other mental health programs for African Americans and people of color.